Published December 14, 2021 | Version v1
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Method and theory in comparative grammar: Measurement uniformity vs. building block uniformity

  • 1. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology


In this presentation, I contrast two approaches to worldwide grammatical comparisons: One is based on “measurement uniformity” and a clear separation between an autonomous comparative method and explanatory theories, while the second is based on the idea that languages are made from the same building blocks, so that the explanatory theory (i.e. the hypothesized uniform building blocks) is not autonomous from the method for comparison. The “measurement” metaphor is not widely used in comparative grammar research yet, but I use it to emphasize the value of distinguishing strictly between method and theory. I illustrate this conceptual distinction with generalizations from my recent work on differential argument coding and other kinds of differential coding (Haspelmath 2021a; 2021b), which require uniform comparative concepts (uniform measurement), but which are based on an explanatory theory (the efficiency theory of asymmetric coding) that makes no reference to innate building blocks. I also note that the distinction between measurement and building block uniformity is more basic than the distinction between “functionalism and formalism” (e.g. Bošković 2021).




Bošković, Željko. 2021. Formalism and, not vs, functionalism. LingBuzz. (

Haspelmath, Martin. 2021a. Role-reference associations and the explanation of argument coding splits. Linguistics 59(1). 123–174. (doi:10.1515/ling-2020-0252)

Haspelmath, Martin. 2021b. Explaining grammatical coding asymmetries: Form-frequency correspondences and predictability. Journal of Linguistics 57(3). 605-633 (doi:10.1017/S0022226720000535) (



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